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I get the “calories burned” question a lot…but here we discuss more specific calories burned hiking.

I want to preface that it’s much more complicated than just calories in vs calories out. To put it simply, the type of food consumed (macronutrients) has an influence on our hormones. These hormones dictate how our metabolism works.

And on top of that, there are several “fuel systems” we rely on for caloric based energy. Each is tapped at different intensity levels.

I’ll discuss some of these metabolic differences later in the article. There are other variables we need to consider when discussing the calories used when hiking. Those too are listed below.

Nonetheless, we can still quantify the average calories burned when hiking.

Let’s get this hike started!

Why is it more complicated than calories in vs calories out?

As I mentioned earlier, the type of calorie consumed has a different effect on certain hormones. To clarify, a fat vs protein vs carbohydrate has a different effect on several different hormones.

And these hormones affect where the calories come from for the different fuel systems.

Yes, a calorie burned is a calorie burned. But what you metabolized to burn as fuel has a lot to do with both the type of activity as well as the hormones in charge of your metabolism. So we just looped back.

Follow me? Food affects hormones. Hormones affect how the metabolism works and where the calories are drawn from. And the activity affects what fuel system we use (those are described below).

With that in mind, let’s discuss the fuel systems and how they work with hiking.

A lesson in fuel systems for energy

There are several systems that process energy/calories for everything from sleeping to all out maximal effort. There’s an awful lot of information out the internet on aerobic vs anaerobic, so I’ll keep this more on the “why does it work that way” aspect.

I’ll also break this down from a metabolic perspective instead of just looking at it from an aerobic vs anaerobic perspective.

The metabolic fuel systems I speak of are known and described as:

The Phosphagen System

Heavily taxed by sprinting, power lifting or interval training (<10 seconds). Training the phosphagen system improves overall power, speed and maximal oxygen uptake. This is good for athletes who incorporate explosive movements in their sport.

The Glycolytic System

Heavily taxed in the fifteen second to three minute duration with interval training, circuit training (weights), heavy cycling, etc. Training the glycolytic system improves blood lactate threshold levels and is good for high intensity endurance.

The Oxidative System

Heavily taxed during a long duration of exercise (20-75% maximum capacity) such as step, cardiovascular equipment, jogging, hiking, etc. Training the oxidative system improves aerobic endurance, cardiovascular and pulmonary tissue, maximal oxygen uptake and body composition.

Okay, so what does this tell us about the number of calories burned when hiking? Well, it helps to calculate based on the type of terrain you’re hiking, the distance, the speed and the weight you’re carrying.

Most of the time, your hikes will keep you in the oxidative system, especially if you’re already well conditioned.

This means your primary fuel source will be glycogen at the upper end. If you’re doing a really slow, long duration, you’ll burn a higher ratio of fat along with the glycogen. I discuss this more below.

Nonetheless, I need to point out that all of the fuel systems are working at the same time. Just in different proportions.

Ultimately, you’re removing a phosphate from ATP to create ADP. This translates into the mechanical energy needed for movement. What’s important is the steps taken to this final outcome.

So, to answer the question, how many calories burned hiking?

Let’s define some of the criteria listed later in the article. We’ll use examples of what fits most individuals:

Our example person is a 30 year old female with an average fitness level. She’s hiking on a dirt trail. Her pace is 3 mph (4.8 km/h) and she hiked for 60 minutes. How many approximate calories?

Terrain On Average
Flat 216 calories burned
2.5% grade 258 calories burned
7.5% grade 384 calories burned
12.5% grade 510 calories burned
25% grade 816 calories burned

You can see that the grade of elevation has a serious effect on calories burned when hiking.

But I say forget the calories! Look at the great cardiovascular effects from hiking uphill!

And don’t forget, terrain changes frequently when hiking.

How do we measure calories burned from hiking?

This is a little more complicated. But any of you who have spent time in a lab for exercise physiology will remember working with a spirometer. This is a way to measure oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. The difference is called the respiratory quotient.

We can actually calculate the amount of calories burned during an activity with a spirometer. This is great information, but we have to remember each person has variables affecting calories burned that are not static. In other words, two people can have a different measurement for the same activity.

But, we can still take the average of a lot of different people and over time come up with an accurate range. Who doesn’t love statistics!

What factors influence calories burned while hiking?

Here’s a list of a few factors that will affect the calories burned while hiking (we discussed some above):

  • Distance
  • Speed
  • Elevation changes (uphill or downhill)
  • Surface (paved, dirt, sand)
  • Bodyweight
  • Body composition
  • Fitness level
  • Amount of weight carried
  • Mechanical efficiency (how efficiently we move)

All of these have to be taken into account when calculating calories burned.

Where are the calories for hiking coming from?

Some may argue a calorie is a calorie. I disagree. Different macronutrients (fat, protein and carbohydrates) have a different influence on our hormones. And those hormones play unique roles in how we utilize calories.

For instance, if you consume a high carbohydrate diet, your insulin levels will be elevated more frequently. When your insulin levels are high, you burn less fat. In other words, what’s stored remains stored and you burn glycogen. It’s a very efficient and usable nutrient for energy.

Believe it or not, our body is very inefficient at burning fat when insulin levels are chronically elevated from a high carbohydrate intake.

On the flip side, if you’re speed hiking up a steep incline, your VO2 max will be too high to use fat as a fuel source. So, you’ll have to rely on glycogen. See what I mean? The actual activity plays a role in deciding the best foods for hiking.

What type of terrain burns more calories?

This is a no brainer to figure out. But walking uphill in sand will expend the most energy. Give it a try sometime. It’s a butt kicker!

You can see in our example above of a 30 year old female hiking for one hour. A 25% grade (yes, that’s steep) burns 400 more calories an hour than flat terrain. Add a forty pound pack to that and the number increases even more (obviously).

For those of you who live in the mountains, you have a real advantage.

But, let’s not forget the long slow duration that utilizes more calories from fat if your insulin levels are at a minimum. That too has merit. I’ll mention it again below to really hammer in my point.

How long should you hike to make a difference?

One of the criteria mentioned above is distance. Rather than discussing miles or kilometers, let use time as a reference.

If we were discussing calories only, then longer is better. Also, recall from above that long slow duration uses a higher percentage of your calories from fat.

If we’re discussing cardiovascular benefits, the slope of the benefits curve starts to drop after sixty minutes.

We could also discuss the oxygen deficit that occurs after intense exercise and the additional calories burned afterwards. But it’s actually a negligible amount. What you eat has a larger influence.

How often should you hike to stay fit?

My unprofessional opinion…everyday since it’s a great way to eliminate stress. But professionally speaking, three, one hour bouts of moderate intensity hiking a week will have a great impact on your fitness.

And if you’re training for a longer duration hike, 5-6 days a week is max. Always make sure you incorporate a rest day.

What’s the best time to hike to burn the most calories from fat?

If you’re hiking flat terrain that doesn’t require a lot of effort, first thing in the morning before your first meal is best. Why?

As mentioned earlier, you’ve depleted your glycogen stores and will metabolize a higher percentage of fat stores under this circumstance.

But seriously, make sure you’re conditioned for this situation. If you’re not used to hiking after a long fast, start slow and carry food with you.

Passing out from low blood sugar while you’re hiking can lead to less desirable situations, to say the least.

Does elevation make a difference for calories burned when hiking?

Yes, more calories are burned when hiking at higher elevations. When doing a literature review, the overall consensus is in agreement. Weight loss is experienced at high altitudes, but we’re not sure whether it’s due to a diminished energy intake or an increased expenditure.

Regardless, more energy is required at higher elevation to do similar work done at lower elevations. In other words, more calories are burned. And this must be accounted for when hiking at higher elevations and preparing food rations.

A note about diet vs exercise

If you decided to begin hiking to lose weight and get into shape, that’s great! But please understand that a change in your diet will have a more dramatic effect on your weight than exercise.

You can learn more about this on my blog

So, put as much effort into improving your diet that you do for hiking (or more). It will pay dividends.


You’re always burning calories whether you’re sleeping or sprinting. And the following criteria effect how you utilize calories during hiking:

  • Distance
  • Speed
  • Elevation changes (uphill or downhill)
  • Surface (paved, dirt, sand)
  • Bodyweight
  • Body composition
  • Fitness level
  • Amount of weight carried
  • Mechanical efficiency (how efficiently we move)

Recall that your three fuel systems are all utilized simultaneously. Just at different proportions.

And the types of foods you consume affect where the calories are obtained from to produce energy. And finally, the intensity of the hike affects which fuel system supplies the energy to hike.

But to keep it simple, you average 9 calories a minute in mountainous terrain with steep elevation changes. And you’ll average 5 calories a minute in mildly hilly terrain.

Questions for You

Now I want to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below:

What’s your favorite terrain to hike in?

And how do you prepare nutritionally for your hike?

FAQs on Calories Burned Hiking

How many calories burned hiking a mountain?

You can use the average above which calculates out to approximately 10 calories per minute. This is more extreme terrain. So, back off that number for more mild terrain.

Calories burned hiking in snow?

This is where it gets a little more complicated. You have several factors affecting the intensity as well as a need to stay warm. I could not find actual data, so we’ll have to guesstimate. Moderately hilly terrain in the snow will end up more like in the 10-12 calories a minute range.

How many calories burned hiking 7 miles?

I get the question based on distance a lot. But we need to look at it as a factor of time instead. The average fit person hiking aggressively will have a pace of 3 miles per hour. This translates into 2.3 hours. If the terrain is moderate, you’ll burn approximately 740 calories for the whole hike. That’s a very loose number.

References & Resources

D. E. DeVoe, R. W. Gotshall & A. W Subudhi, Energy Expenditure during Recreational Backpacking: A Case Study, Journal of Human Movement Studies, 1997, 33, 155-169.

Hill N, Stacey M, Woods, Energy at High Altitude, BMJ Military Health 2011;157:43-48.

David W. Jenkins DPM, Alexander Jenks DPM, Hiking with Diabetes: Risks and Benefits, J Am Podiatr Med Assoc (2017) 107 (5): 382–392.

McArdle, William; Katch, Frank; Katch, Victor, Exercise Physiology Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance, fourth edition,, Williams and Wilkins, 1996.

Hamad, Noora; Travis, Simon P.L.b Weight loss at high altitude: pathophysiology and practical implications, European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology: January 2006 – Volume 18 – Issue 1 – p 5-10

Isabelle D. Wolf, Teresa Wohlfart, Walking, hiking and running in parks: A multidisciplinary assessment of health and well-being benefits, Landscape and Urban Planning Volume 130, October 2014, Pages 89-103.